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Wednesday, June 18, 2008


al-sadr still restrained before elections

per juan cole:

The Sadr Movement says it will not oppose the planned military operation in Amara as long as the Iraqi government does not take advantage of it to make arbitrary arrests of its members.

... The USG Open Source Center translates an interview in the Kuwaiti al-Watan newspaper with Dr. Asma al-Musawi of the Sadr Movement, in which she comments on negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments on a Status of Forces Agreement. She confirms that the Sadrists insist that any SOFA be submitted for a national referendum and says that if such a referendum passed the agreement, the Sadrists would accept it. She also confirms that the government of PM Nuri al-Maliki has decided to exclude the Sadrists from the fall provincial elections on the grounds that the Sadr Movement maintains an armed militia, the Mahdi Army. (But the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, al-Maliki's current power base, also maintains a militia, the Badr Corps, but it is not being sanctioned for it. Muqtada al-Sadr's recent decisions to turn the bulk of the Mahdi Army into a social service organization and to field candidates only under other party lists appear to be calculated to get around al-Maliki's decision.

so it seems that the reassertion of the mahdi army thankfully never came off, with moktada al-sadr, with the fighting of late march having been curtailed. the economist this week made a cover story of the improvements in iraq, but in the end concedes that, whatever the multifactor analysis of the betterment, all rests on al-sadr.

Another reason for the drop in violence is that the mass movement loyal to a fierce Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, has also either decided to back off, perhaps just for the time being, or has been beaten back by a mixture of American and Iraqi government forces. Earlier this year, Sadrist violence had risen, culminating in March in a big battle for the southern port city of Basra. At first, the Sadrists seemed to have fended off attempts by the Iraqi army to squash them. The Sadrists' Mahdi Army militias elsewhere in southern and central Iraq and in the eastern slums of Baghdad known as Sadr City rose up in solidarity with their brothers in Basra. From their base in Sadr City, on the opposite side of the Tigris, they subjected Baghdad's Green Zone to a hail of mortar and rocket fire.

But in mid-May they accepted a truce. Since then, the Iraqi army has been able to patrol Sadr City more or less unmolested, uncovering weapons caches and sniffing out leaders of so-called “special groups” of renegade Sadrists who appear to be beyond the control of Mr Sadr himself. The government will get a big boost if it can at last bring basic services into the wretched slums of Sadr City, such as electricity, sanitation and medicine. In Basra too, after an astonishing turn-round, the Iraqi army seems to have bested the Sadrists.

Yet the Sadrists still have a wide base of support, especially among the poor. Mr Sadr himself may be planning to turn his movement into a mainstream political-cum-religious party. The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, aiming his wrath at the Sadrists, has said that no party may take part in the provincial elections unless it first disbands its militias. No one expects the Mahdi Army to disband fully—and no one is sure how much control Mr Sadr has over his movement's fractious components. He may manage to persuade most of his militiamen to stand down. But if Mr Maliki seeks to disbar the movement from competing in the elections, the Sadrists may still run as independents—and could yet sweep the board in the south.

so what remains true about iraq is that the dimunition of violence is a product of its internal dynamics -- particularly the decisions of moktada al-sadr and the mahdi army -- and not of external military impositions from the united states. but this is nonetheless the best news, however tentative, to emerge from iraq in some time. if al-sadr sees his avenue to power as a political one and not a military one, iraq has a chance of stability. if not, it doesn't.

as such, provincial elections are approaching and june 30 potentially represents a watershed, as the point whereby iraqi electoral coalitions will be registered. prime minister nuri al-maliki has sought to prevent al-sadr from registering on the pretense of the mahdi army being an illegal militia, even though al-maliki is himself affiliated with his own party militia, the badr brigade. if he and his american supporters succeed in marginalizing the sadrists, there may be a return to violence.

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